Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Receiving and Using Feedback (2): breaking it down

The feedback has come in. You've finished cursing your readers as heartless, inhuman fiends. What next?

Well, you want to get the most mileage from it you can, and you want to avoid any difficulties it might create. I think the way to go about this is to break the feedback down. Break it down into pieces. And test each piece to see how it fits.

Some pieces are compliments: "This is some good work," they write, or "You're getting close," or some such comment. Compliments are good. And they're not to be taken lightly.
"It is notoriously hard to write a good review," notes Julia Cameron. "It is hard to be specific about a book's strengths. It is notoriously easy to write a slam. It is shamefully easy to be specific about a book's weaknesses." Keep this in mind for the compliments, and for the complaints.

Some pieces are nothing but complaint. You can pretty much ignore these. If you're getting lots of complaints, you're probably fully aware that your reader is dissatisfied.

Some pieces are specific: they talk about a specific paragraph or sentence. Whether compliment or complaint, specific pieces need to be examined individually for their merits. What does the comment tell you about your writing? What can you learn from it to improve your writing?

Some specific pieces will be easily used: use 'em and make a note of them. You want to be sure to remind your professors/readers of what you have done to accommodate their wishes (to some extent).

Some will be hard to understand. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification. Asking for clarification does not make one appear weak or stupid. In the right context a willingness to admit ignorance can be an indicator of both confidence and wisdom: the wise person knows that no one knows everything.

The process of breaking down the feedback is a piece-by-piece deconstruction in which you strive to look at each comment as an individual comment.

Each individual comment needs to be evaluated by you in the context of your own work: how does the comment match up against the ideas that you're trying to develop? If not, does it indicate a misunderstanding that can be fixed by minor revisions? Or does it indicate some logical problems that need slightly wider revisions? Or is it something else.

The ultimate test of whether a comment makes sense and whether to use it is whether you think it furthers your purpose. Test each comment against your main points, and see what that teaches you about your writing, about your ideas, about the ideas of your reader, and about the reader's character and attitude.

Each comment is evidence to be studied. And the only comments to take to heart are the compliments; all the complaints are nothing but evidence that will help you plan what to do next.

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